Posts

Christmas Special 2013 – Nul Point

Over the past few weeks, many of you will have been under the impression that an important event is just around the corner. Greeting cards have been sent. Food has been stockpiled. Music rehearsed… It’s clearly that time of year again. Which can mean only one thing: the RSP has been on to go for two years – can you believe this?

Nul Point Contestants

Nul Point Contestants George Chryssides, Jim Cox, Stephen Gregg, Suzanne Owen, Hanna Lehtinen, Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett and David Wilson.

To celebrate, we couldn’t resist bringing you another Christmas special [other (non-)religious festivals are available]. Following on from last year’s hilarious Only Sixty Seconds, we brought together last year’s winner (Dr David Wilson), and last year’s ‘most entertaining loser’ (Jonathan Tuckett), with six other contestants, to fight for the coveted RSP Christmas trophy.

The game?

Nul Point! (any resemblance to a popular BBC television programme hosted by Alexander Armstrong is entirely coincidental). Before the show, we gave 64 of the RSP listeners 100 seconds to answer a variety of questions. The aim of the game for contestants is to correctly find the answer which the least percentage of these people answered correctly. Simples.

The contestants?

Professor George Chryssides, Professor James Cox, Dr Stephen Gregg, Hanna Lehtinen, Dr Suzanne Owen, Dr Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett, and Dr David Wilson

The venue?

Liverpool Hope University, at the BASR/EASR/IAHR Conference in September 2013, with a special live studio audience.

What is the least well known book of the Bible? How many people in the UK listed their ‘religion’ as ‘Jedi Knight’ on the UK 2011 Census? What is Professor Jim Cox’s drink of choice? To find out, you need do nothing more than hit ‘Play’ and enjoy this forty minutes of pure, unadulterated, top quality Religious Studies entertainment. Remember to listen to the end for some amusing outtakes.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost as you start to enact your New Year’s resolutions – whatever they may be.

There was a picture round as part of the game show – you can view these pictures here. Interested in seeing a picture of the winner being presented with their trophy? Click here.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2014. We’ll be back in January – bigger and better than ever. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this recording – the contestants, the hosts, and the studio audience. Thanks to the BASR/EASR/IAHR for facilitating this recording and adding it to the official conference schedule. Thanks to the technical team at Liverpool Hope University for the audio recording, and to the inestimable David Robertson for technical wizardry on the night, and in pulling the episode together. Thanks to those listeners and fans who helped out by providing the much-needed material for the game show. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, thanks for listening.

More popular than Jesus? Jung, Freud, and Religion

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist’s German psychiatrist is revealed to be a Buchenwald Nazi doctor in hiding. His revealing statement in his own defence hinges on his choice of psychiatric method. “But didn’t I try to atone? If I’d been a real Nazi I’d have chosen Jung, nicht wahr? But I chose Freud instead, the Jew.”

The divide between Freud and Jung (recently dramatized in the mediocre David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method) is one of our own modern myths, like the divide between Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world. This is particularly true when it comes to their view of religion. I was vaguely conscious, while studying theology, of a sense among my teachers that Jung was acceptable in a way that Freud wasn’t (I remember one of my supervisors cryptically advising me to embrace my shadow self after I’d come to him with the usual postgraduate woes). Jung was sympathetic to religion. Jung didn’t think religion was neurosis. Jung was on our side.[1]

Segal mentions that Jung’s father was a pastor. He doesn’t touch on Freud’s Jewishness, perhaps because Freud himself rejected Judaism along with all other religions. But the differences between their backgrounds is important, perhaps not so much for how it affected their work but how it affected perceptions of their work. As the opening quote from Pynchon suggests, the Nazis could appreciate Jung and his collective unconscious, his initial understanding of Hitler’s rise as the resurgence of the Wotan archetype in the German unconscious. Freud, to the Nazis, would always be the self-loathing Jew with his conception of a universe full of souls as sick and parasitic and pornographic as his own.[2] I saw this split, sans the anti-Semitic undertones, among my lecturers in Dublin and Oxford. Freud was understood as the one who’d seen religion as a sickness, Jung was the one who’d seen it as something deep and beautiful and true in a way.

Segal suggests, with slightly cynical humour, that people like to be told that they’re deeper and more complex than they realized.  People certainly prefer being told that their faith is deep and beautiful and sort of true than it is a neurosis that has something to do with wanting to kill their father and sleep with their mother.

Segal argues persuasively against the idea that Jung could ever have been considered a disciple of Freud. This is a pity, since in many ways the relationship between Freud and Jung has fascinating resonances with my own study of discipleship in the ancient world. My thesis is on Peter and Judas in the Gospels and I am particularly interested in the way that these characters relate to Jesus as disciples.[3] One of my findings is that the ancient world regards true discipleship as adhering unquestioningly to what one’s teacher has taught. The student who develops into an independent critical thinker and questions or rejects his master’s teachings is a traitor just as Judas was a traitor.[4] If Jung was not Freud’s disciple, he can at least be considered the older man’s protégé and, as Segal says, one-time heir apparent. The interview addresses the psychic anguish his break with Freud caused Jung, and Freud’s own deep sense of betrayal is a well-known part of the myth.[5]

But Segal touches on something rather interesting when he comments that Freud’s inner circle of brilliant acolytes all outgrew and turned against him, one after another, while Jung’s mediocre followers remained devoted to his methods even after his death. Is there an implied criticism of Jung there, that he didn’t dare surround himself with people who could challenge him intellectually, as he had challenged Freud? But the ancient Greek archetype[6] of the good disciple was exactly this type of dull, unimaginative person. The primary qualities of a good disciple were his or her devotion to a master and the ability to completely absorb the master’s teachings. Damis, whose memoirs are the source for Philostratus’ third century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, proudly tells us that his task is to preserve even the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.

Finally, I was struck by Segal’s description of how Jung thought religion would fade away –its explanatory role replaced by science, and its role in connecting people to the collective unconscious replaced by Jungian psychiatry. I connected it to Frazer’s similarly misplaced confidence that human belief has moved from magic to religion and is now finally moving to science.[7] Unlike many intellectuals of his day, including Freud, Jung wasn’t troubled by the irrationality of religion but evidently he did share a general belief (in some cases, a hope) that its day was over. And his confidence that he himself would at least partially replace it echoes John Lennon: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

 


[1] Interestingly, my experience in the world of literary criticism is of much more sympathy towards Freud. Just as Segal is not a Jungian, not many literary critics are committed Freudians, but they can still appreciate the power and elegance of his ideas.

[2] It must be said that Freud did not help matters with Moses and Monotheism, his deeply strange book of 1937, which claimed that the Jews had treacherously murdered Moses. Freud was aware of the dangers of making such a claim at a time when anti-Semitism was reaching ever-new heights (and had already driven him from Austria) and did wrestle with the question of whether or not to publish it.

[3] One can see the importance of this theme in the title of Hans-Josef Klauck’s 1987 book Judas, ein Jünger des Herrn (Judas: a disciple of the master).

[4] Origen, in Contra Celsum 2:12, makes the comparison explicit. I sometimes wonder what my supervisors make of this particular line of inquiry.

[5] The same Jung-loving tutors mentioned above took pleasure in repeating the (apocryphal?) story of how Freud fainted the first time Jung disagreed with him. Primarily, I think, because it makes Freud sound rather foolish.

[6] In the Northrop Frye sense, not the Jungian sense.

[7] Northrop Frye posits a movement in Western written language from the metaphorical (Homer) to the metonymic (Plato and continuous prose) to the descriptive (Francis Bacon and Locke). In Biblical scholarship, Morton Smith, Marcus Borg, and J.D. Crossan have written on Jesus as a magician or ‘spirit person’ set against the religion of the Temple.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.


Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.

References

Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.

 

Podcasts

Christmas Special 2013 – Nul Point

Over the past few weeks, many of you will have been under the impression that an important event is just around the corner. Greeting cards have been sent. Food has been stockpiled. Music rehearsed… It’s clearly that time of year again. Which can mean only one thing: the RSP has been on to go for two years – can you believe this?

Nul Point Contestants

Nul Point Contestants George Chryssides, Jim Cox, Stephen Gregg, Suzanne Owen, Hanna Lehtinen, Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett and David Wilson.

To celebrate, we couldn’t resist bringing you another Christmas special [other (non-)religious festivals are available]. Following on from last year’s hilarious Only Sixty Seconds, we brought together last year’s winner (Dr David Wilson), and last year’s ‘most entertaining loser’ (Jonathan Tuckett), with six other contestants, to fight for the coveted RSP Christmas trophy.

The game?

Nul Point! (any resemblance to a popular BBC television programme hosted by Alexander Armstrong is entirely coincidental). Before the show, we gave 64 of the RSP listeners 100 seconds to answer a variety of questions. The aim of the game for contestants is to correctly find the answer which the least percentage of these people answered correctly. Simples.

The contestants?

Professor George Chryssides, Professor James Cox, Dr Stephen Gregg, Hanna Lehtinen, Dr Suzanne Owen, Dr Teemu Taira, Jonathan Tuckett, and Dr David Wilson

The venue?

Liverpool Hope University, at the BASR/EASR/IAHR Conference in September 2013, with a special live studio audience.

What is the least well known book of the Bible? How many people in the UK listed their ‘religion’ as ‘Jedi Knight’ on the UK 2011 Census? What is Professor Jim Cox’s drink of choice? To find out, you need do nothing more than hit ‘Play’ and enjoy this forty minutes of pure, unadulterated, top quality Religious Studies entertainment. Remember to listen to the end for some amusing outtakes.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost as you start to enact your New Year’s resolutions – whatever they may be.

There was a picture round as part of the game show – you can view these pictures here. Interested in seeing a picture of the winner being presented with their trophy? Click here.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2014. We’ll be back in January – bigger and better than ever. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this recording – the contestants, the hosts, and the studio audience. Thanks to the BASR/EASR/IAHR for facilitating this recording and adding it to the official conference schedule. Thanks to the technical team at Liverpool Hope University for the audio recording, and to the inestimable David Robertson for technical wizardry on the night, and in pulling the episode together. Thanks to those listeners and fans who helped out by providing the much-needed material for the game show. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, thanks for listening.

More popular than Jesus? Jung, Freud, and Religion

In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the protagonist’s German psychiatrist is revealed to be a Buchenwald Nazi doctor in hiding. His revealing statement in his own defence hinges on his choice of psychiatric method. “But didn’t I try to atone? If I’d been a real Nazi I’d have chosen Jung, nicht wahr? But I chose Freud instead, the Jew.”

The divide between Freud and Jung (recently dramatized in the mediocre David Cronenberg film A Dangerous Method) is one of our own modern myths, like the divide between Plato and Aristotle in the ancient world. This is particularly true when it comes to their view of religion. I was vaguely conscious, while studying theology, of a sense among my teachers that Jung was acceptable in a way that Freud wasn’t (I remember one of my supervisors cryptically advising me to embrace my shadow self after I’d come to him with the usual postgraduate woes). Jung was sympathetic to religion. Jung didn’t think religion was neurosis. Jung was on our side.[1]

Segal mentions that Jung’s father was a pastor. He doesn’t touch on Freud’s Jewishness, perhaps because Freud himself rejected Judaism along with all other religions. But the differences between their backgrounds is important, perhaps not so much for how it affected their work but how it affected perceptions of their work. As the opening quote from Pynchon suggests, the Nazis could appreciate Jung and his collective unconscious, his initial understanding of Hitler’s rise as the resurgence of the Wotan archetype in the German unconscious. Freud, to the Nazis, would always be the self-loathing Jew with his conception of a universe full of souls as sick and parasitic and pornographic as his own.[2] I saw this split, sans the anti-Semitic undertones, among my lecturers in Dublin and Oxford. Freud was understood as the one who’d seen religion as a sickness, Jung was the one who’d seen it as something deep and beautiful and true in a way.

Segal suggests, with slightly cynical humour, that people like to be told that they’re deeper and more complex than they realized.  People certainly prefer being told that their faith is deep and beautiful and sort of true than it is a neurosis that has something to do with wanting to kill their father and sleep with their mother.

Segal argues persuasively against the idea that Jung could ever have been considered a disciple of Freud. This is a pity, since in many ways the relationship between Freud and Jung has fascinating resonances with my own study of discipleship in the ancient world. My thesis is on Peter and Judas in the Gospels and I am particularly interested in the way that these characters relate to Jesus as disciples.[3] One of my findings is that the ancient world regards true discipleship as adhering unquestioningly to what one’s teacher has taught. The student who develops into an independent critical thinker and questions or rejects his master’s teachings is a traitor just as Judas was a traitor.[4] If Jung was not Freud’s disciple, he can at least be considered the older man’s protégé and, as Segal says, one-time heir apparent. The interview addresses the psychic anguish his break with Freud caused Jung, and Freud’s own deep sense of betrayal is a well-known part of the myth.[5]

But Segal touches on something rather interesting when he comments that Freud’s inner circle of brilliant acolytes all outgrew and turned against him, one after another, while Jung’s mediocre followers remained devoted to his methods even after his death. Is there an implied criticism of Jung there, that he didn’t dare surround himself with people who could challenge him intellectually, as he had challenged Freud? But the ancient Greek archetype[6] of the good disciple was exactly this type of dull, unimaginative person. The primary qualities of a good disciple were his or her devotion to a master and the ability to completely absorb the master’s teachings. Damis, whose memoirs are the source for Philostratus’ third century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, proudly tells us that his task is to preserve even the crumbs that fell from his master’s table.

Finally, I was struck by Segal’s description of how Jung thought religion would fade away –its explanatory role replaced by science, and its role in connecting people to the collective unconscious replaced by Jungian psychiatry. I connected it to Frazer’s similarly misplaced confidence that human belief has moved from magic to religion and is now finally moving to science.[7] Unlike many intellectuals of his day, including Freud, Jung wasn’t troubled by the irrationality of religion but evidently he did share a general belief (in some cases, a hope) that its day was over. And his confidence that he himself would at least partially replace it echoes John Lennon: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

 


[1] Interestingly, my experience in the world of literary criticism is of much more sympathy towards Freud. Just as Segal is not a Jungian, not many literary critics are committed Freudians, but they can still appreciate the power and elegance of his ideas.

[2] It must be said that Freud did not help matters with Moses and Monotheism, his deeply strange book of 1937, which claimed that the Jews had treacherously murdered Moses. Freud was aware of the dangers of making such a claim at a time when anti-Semitism was reaching ever-new heights (and had already driven him from Austria) and did wrestle with the question of whether or not to publish it.

[3] One can see the importance of this theme in the title of Hans-Josef Klauck’s 1987 book Judas, ein Jünger des Herrn (Judas: a disciple of the master).

[4] Origen, in Contra Celsum 2:12, makes the comparison explicit. I sometimes wonder what my supervisors make of this particular line of inquiry.

[5] The same Jung-loving tutors mentioned above took pleasure in repeating the (apocryphal?) story of how Freud fainted the first time Jung disagreed with him. Primarily, I think, because it makes Freud sound rather foolish.

[6] In the Northrop Frye sense, not the Jungian sense.

[7] Northrop Frye posits a movement in Western written language from the metaphorical (Homer) to the metonymic (Plato and continuous prose) to the descriptive (Francis Bacon and Locke). In Biblical scholarship, Morton Smith, Marcus Borg, and J.D. Crossan have written on Jesus as a magician or ‘spirit person’ set against the religion of the Temple.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

[Martin] alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor.

Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?

By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Dale Martin on Religious Studies and Biblical Studies (21 January 2013).

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was published earlier today with a couple of minor but important changes made by Chris and mistakenly not communicated to the author. These unauthorised changes have been removed, and the version presented below meets with the approval of both Mr Lataster and the editors. The RSP would like to apologise to Mr Lataster, and to our readers, for any unintended misrepresentation of this important piece.


Around the half-way mark of Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin, a contention was raised, that if true, is damaging to Religious Studies (and related disciplines), and betrays the value and one of the key initial purposes of the field. It is obvious to many of us that Religious Studies is useful, due in part to the critical, secular, etic approach to religion that it encourages. (Although this does not necessitate that Religious Studies scholars be irreligious, or be forbidden to or encouraged to avoid teaching or researching their own personal faith). Tsonis questions Martin on criticism that many Religious Studies scholars are effectively arguing for the usefulness of religion, demonstrating a pro-religious agenda. Tsonis mentions one academic claiming that Religious Studies scholars “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary.” Tsonis wonders if this is a real phenomenon, and what effects this may have on our colleagues’ methodologies, funding, and employment prospects. Martin’s answer is thoughtful, but also damning.

In attempting to deny the claim, Martin acknowledges that many scholars working in Biblical Studies are Christians, and many of them are of the conservative type. He then says that the claim does not align with his experience, citing examples of scholars teaching on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, without personally practicing or arguing for those faiths. It seems that not only has Martin acknowledged the issue in a roundabout way, but also alludes to a greater problem: the imbalance of power, the greater influence of Christianity in Western academia, compared with other religions, both major and minor. This discussion prompted me to reminisce about my own experiences in my first year of working in the scholarly world, particularly in initiating my Master’s research dissertation.

I faced opposition from within the department to the extent that I had considered abandoning the project. These challenges presented themselves despite the fact that I had not yet decided the angle, or of course, the conclusions. What was the topic that proved so challenging to research? Jesus mythicism, the contention that there may not have been a ‘historical Jesus’. I would eventually pass, with the examiners – themselves scholars of Religious Studies – agreeing that a review of the methods of many Biblical scholars is necessary (for example, the increasingly-maligned Criteria of Authenticity) and that it is entirely rational to be sceptical over the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Such conclusions should not necessarily be so controversial in a field dedicated to the critical and non-confessional study of religion. More worryingly, there were instances where I felt pressure to alter the direction of the project, in order to allow for more ‘Christian-friendly conclusions’.

But why would such respected scholars wish to interfere with the most fundamental of academic freedoms? It may have had something to do with their personal religious beliefs about Jesus. Interestingly however, such belief is not actually required for such a reaction. One example is provided by noted Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, one of many secular New Testament experts. Professor Ehrman is an outspoken atheist, yet dogmatically defends the historicity of Jesus and the usefulness of his teachings, while harshly and fallaciously (Lataster 2013) criticising those scholars that are audacious enough to be more sceptical than he (Ehrman 2012). Hector Avalos argues that even many non-Christian scholars are influenced by the political power, and finances, of pro-Christian organisations (Avalos 2007). Avalos claims that positive attitudes towards the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general, is often seen as necessary in order to keep these academic disciplines relevant, and funded.

Hoping that Avalos’ gloomy conclusions were wrong, and that experiences such as my own are rare, I would then discover a powerful Christian undercurrent in a related – and perhaps more esteemed – field; ancient history. While studying the historical Jesus under one of Tsonis’ colleagues from the Ancient History department of Macquarie University, I ‘learnt’ that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent in the historical record.” I would then participate in a public debate against one of my own Religious Studies postgraduate colleagues, and another Ancient Historian from Macquarie University, where my (Christian) opponents used their authority as subject-matter experts in attempting to convince the audience that it is perfectly rational to believe that a miracle-man was brought back from the dead by an unproven deity. It didn’t matter to this ancient historian that his resurrection claim is burdened by a crippling prior probability, is supported by extremely poor sources, or that there are far more probabilistic – and naturalistic – explanations, despite his agreeing with my reasonable claim that history is probabilistic. Christian influences can even be found in Philosophy departments, once great bastions of rationalism and scepticism, via Philosophy of Religion (Quadrio 2009).

Back to the interview, Martin further addresses the contention that Religious Studies scholars border on being crypto-theologians, and defends his ‘insider’ status. He argues that his Biblical criticisms ought to be given more weight (compared with a non-believer’s criticisms) as he is a Christian, and might be expected to aggressively defend his faith and agree more with his fellow adherents. As with the speculative criterion of embarrassment, Martin’s criticisms are partly interesting due to their counter-intuitive nature. These relatively small criticisms however, must be weighed against the fact that Martin still believes the unsubstantiated and question-begging claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, by God. Fortunately, in a recent debate, he correctly acknowledges that Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established historically, though this belief does form a part of his worldview (Licona et al. 2012), his values, and ultimately, would be expected to directly or indirectly affect his researching and teaching on Christianity. Martin might indeed offer the occasional criticism here or there, resulting in minor conflict with his fellow believers, but he stops short of, and would not be expected to, criticising and renouncing Christianity and Christian beliefs as a whole.

Further commenting on what became the dominant theme of the interview, Martin offered a surprising and seemingly unreasonable counter to the claim that Religious Studies scholars are apologising for religion. Instead of denying this claim, he accuses English, History, and Political Science scholars as being apologists for modern liberalism. Rather than outright denying or acknowledging what may be a vitally important issue in education, Martin offers a tu quoque justification. i.e. “Everyone else does it.” With the discussion drawing to a close, Martin demonstrates an example of my claim that what he offers is only relatively benign pseudo-criticism of his faith. He criticises researchers who attempt to show the similarities of Christianity to other religions and myths (an important and historical foundation of Religious Studies), while asking scholars to be more open-minded to the potential truth of supernatural events and experiences. I am not arguing that the perspectives of ‘insiders’ are not valuable, that religious believers are unwelcome in Religious Studies departments, and related fields, or that religion is not a force for good in the world. I merely wish to share my own experiences on the matter, and to encourage scholars to leave their personal beliefs at the door, as they enter the sacred grounds of the University.

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About the Author

With a background in pharmacy, medicine, and finance, Raphael Lataster is a hopeful PhD candidate, having recently passed his Master of Arts (Research), undertaken in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, with Distinction. His main research interests include Christian origins, logic, epistemology, justifications and social impacts of secularism, Taoism, overpopulation and sustainability concerns, pantheism, and pandeism. Raphael wrote his Master’s thesis on Jesus mythicism, concluding that historical and Bayesian reasoning justifies a sceptical attitude towards the ‘historical Jesus’. For his doctoral work, Raphael will analyse the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence (as argued by William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Aquinas), attempt to demonstrate the logical impossibility of the monotheistic concept, explore the theological tendencies of Philosophy of Religion, and formulate a conditional logical argument for a pantheistic weltanschauung. Raphael is currently writing and attempting to publish numerous articles summarising his Master’s dissertation, and exploring the themes of his proposed doctoral project. Raphael is always open to – and encourages – feedback and advice, especially regarding the politics and processes of academia and publishing, and alternative worldviews.

References

Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012.

Lataster, Raphael. Jesus scepticism: An examination of the arguments for various ‘Jesus as a myth’ theories. Master’s thesis, Sydney University, 2013.

Licona, Michael, and Dale Martin. Did Jesus Rise Physically from the Dead? Arva, ON: The Navigators, 2012. Video recording.

Quadrio, Philip A. Kant and Rousseau on the critique of philosophical theology: The primacy of practical reason. Sophia 48, no. 2 (2009): 179-193.